Cracking the Glass Ceiling

Cracking the Glass Ceiling
Anne Emile Zaki

At the side of Anne’s desk there is a wooden shield, presented to her this year by her old university as ‘Young Alumni of the Year’. It is quite an honour, but then Anne is a remarkable person. She is the kind of person who is constantly trying to break the glass ceiling which restricts the advancement of women in Egypt, especially within the Church. Anne was born in Egypt. Both her father and her grandfather were ministers, so the Church was very central to her life. She grew up in Cairo, but at the age of 16 was selected to study at an international school in Canada, which shows something of her calibre.

It was quite something for a 16 year old girl to leave home and family, but she did so. She returned to Egypt two years later, only to be offered a scholarship at Calvin College in the States. Here she read Psychology and Sociology, and met her husband-to-be, Naji, a Canadian of Syrian/ German Dutch extraction studying to be a pastor. After finishing her degree, she returned to Cairo to take her masters in Psychology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), with Naji who followed her to Cairo.

They married and settled in North America where Naji was a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.  Anne was happy being a pastor’s wife and began to study for her PhD. in Christian Education. Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in Egypt which did not ordain women, she had never considered ordination, but this was to change. She became more and more immersed in church work and was even leading worship and preaching, and it was Naji who eventually challenged her, asking whether she felt herself called to be a pastor. Anne began a period of discernment and came to the conclusion that biblically there was nothing to hinder her from seeking ordination.

She switched from her Doctorate to the M.Div. programme at Calvin Theological Seminary, a four year course for those seeking ordination. Anne had however still not decided what to do at the end of the course, whether to seek ordination or not. The years at Calvin were wonderful years, but also challenging, as she was now also a mother of four boys, and so had more questions about how motherhood fitted in with being either an academic or a pastor. It was only at the end of her 4th year that Anne eventually submitted her application forms to be ordained. However, she felt no peace, and two weeks later withdrew them.

Anne with four of her students

Despite this, she still felt the call and, ironically, had a strong sense that the call would be fulfilled in Egypt (ironic because the church in Egypt did not ordain women as pastors at the time). It was, she says, like taking lessons to fly, when no-one had yet invented the plane! She wrote to the church in Egypt and received a pleasant letter back, appreciating the work of Anne’s father and grandfather, but stating the obvious – women were not ordained in Egypt! She wrote the following year and received a similar reply.

But… then came the Revolution, and while many other Christian Egyptians left the country, Anne, Naji and the family moved to Egypt. Suddenly the Church could not ignore her anymore. The issue of women’s ordination had to be addressed. It is a very contentious issue, and many remain opposed to it, more for cultural reasons than biblical or theological ones. At the last Synod meeting (the equivalent of the General Assembly) the argument became very heated and it was proposed, and accepted, that it depart from the issue (and not even discuss it) for ten years! This has been contested, and it may be that the issue will be re-opened. “As long as the discussion is on the table, I am fine” Anne says.

Anne has joined the staff at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC) as a part-time worker teaching international relations. By now she is full-time, and teaches courses in preaching, communication, psychology, spiritual formation and worship. She laughs that she is trusted to teach future pastors, but not to be a pastor herself! Anne combines her role as a mother in her own family with the wider role of being right in the centre of the ETSC family, supporting and affirming all the students; male and female. She has also been invited to preach in many congregations across Egypt, and while she inevitably faces criticism, she also has many women approaching her to say that they too feel called to be pastors. Only time will tell whether Anne will be ordained or not, but she is certainly preparing the way.